What can children’s spelling tell us about underlying representations?





underlying representations, spelling, morphophonemic alternations, Catalan, Optimality Theory, Richness of the Base, Lexicon Optimization, Free-ride


This paper examines the written productions of first and second grade Catalan children in an attempt to tap into their understanding of the underlying forms of Catalan unstressed vowels for which alternations are not present (and for which multiple inputs are thus possible). The paper also explores the differences in spelling between alternating and non-alternating [ə] and [u], in order to find out whether morphophonemic alternations are taken into consideration in children’s spellings choices, as well at which stage these start to be considered.

The results for first graders show generalized misspellings in which schwa and [u] are systematically associated with the graphemes a and u, regardless these vowels alternate with vowels in stressed position or do not. This behavior clearly supports the Lexicon Optimization Hypothesis, according to which there is a first stage in language acquisition in which, from all possible input candidates (Richness of the Base), the learner selects the one that matches the adult output representation as the optimal input (Smolensky 1996).

The results for second graders show a noticeable decline in misspellings for alternating schwa  and [u]. This leads to think that morphophonemic alternations are progressively incorporated and taken into account in the process of UR construction. Of course, this better performance in the spelling of alternating vowels might also be a consequence of a better familiarity with conventional spelling. Importantly, though, the decline in misspellings for alternating schwa and [u] coincides with an increase in spelling mistakes for non-alternating vowels. In our view, this undescores the influence of conventional orthography in children’s spelling choices, points to the influence of phonology, and more specifically to a stage of vacillation with respect to the UR of non-alternating forms, with apparent overgeneralizations. This behavior, thus, may support the free-ride approach to morphophonemic learning (McCarthy 2005).

The results for both first graders and second graders show differences in the spelling between back vowels (with fewer mistakes) and non-back vowels (with more mistakes), and we argued this might be related to the fact that the children have to deal with a more reduced typology of output-input alternations for back vowels (two-to-one) than for non-back vowels (three-to-one). This is evidence, again, for the role of morphophonemic alternations (i.e. morphology) in children’s spelling choices. The results for both graders also reveal that more productive alternations, such as the ones found between a base and the diminutive, are more transparent to the kids than others: whereas diminutives were generally spelled correctly, non-diminutives were not, giving support again to the influence of morphophonemic alternations, and their transparency, in children’s spelling choices.

Author Biography

  • Clàudia Pons-Moll, Universitat de Barcelona

    Departament de Filologia Catalana i Lingüística Genera

    Associate Professor






Supplemental Proceedings